Article by Rocío Álvarez Jiménez & Marta Negrete.
When you ask Mark Allsopp, CEO of True South Seafood Group, what led him into aquaculture, he starts by telling you that he grew up in a small town in the north of Western Australia, where his whole life revolved around the ocean, swimming, fishing, diving, surfing. However, his mind jumps almost immediately to other words, love, passion, respect, sustainability. And just like that, in seconds, it all comes together.
“I’ve always loved the ocean. I was passionate about the ocean. I also love food. A lot of people say the two things came together. I had a lot of respect for the ocean and the seafood that came out of it. And the best thing I thought of was to produce, to get into seafood production in a sustainable way”. And this is how the story of a career committed to the ocean begins.
Filling the gap in food demand in a sustainable way to fight climate change
It is a fact that the demand for food is growing every day. It is also a fact that seafood is the healthiest option of all proteins on the market. So, as Mark says, “we can expect demand to continue to grow and aquaculture will need to fill the void”. As he sees it, “aquaculture is an industry that can help fill the gap between declining wild fisheries and increasing demand for seafood”.
For Mark, the fact that there are a finite number of people involved in the value chain is what makes it possible for sustainability to be controlled and managed within this industry. But to do this, he believes, it should focus its growth on sustainable products, “such as bivalves that remove nutrients and algae which act CO2 sinks in the marine environment”. Because, as he summarizes, “the net result is producing a protein whilst reducing CO2”.
Given that the scalability of these sectors is good, if this growth were to be done as proposed by the CEO of True South Seafood Group, such large-scale production of bivalves and algae would have a considerable impact on climate change. “One of the biggest CO2 sinks in the world is microalgae and macroalgae in the ocean. And shellfish, obviously are consumers of micro-macroalgae. So, my philosophy is that if we are to produce a protein source for human consumption from that product form, then we’re also contributing to reducing CO2 levels, which is obviously impacting climate change”, he states.
A devotee of aquaculture, now in fishing
Mark’s commitment to sustainability in aquaculture also extends to fisheries, which is, in fact, the sector in which True South Seafood is included. The company’s daily production of abalone, Pāua, and sea urchin, is hand-harvested by experienced divers. “Their lifetimes of experience and knowledge often passed from generation to generation ensures deep respect for their environment and for the produce they skilfully bring from seafloor to shore”, they say on their website.
Being a fishery production means that, as is usual in a system that seeks ocean sustainability, that fishery is managed through quotas. “We are allocated a certain number of units that we can take out of the ocean and that’s how we then have a biomass study done each year that determines the quality of the biomass and how much we can take out the following year. Everything is regulated”, Mark explains.
Working towards having a zero-waste policy
However, True South Seafood’s commitment to sustainable production is not limited to fishing. The company is also committed to reducing non-biodegradable packaging materials and has invested in renewable energy and state-of-the-art refrigerated transport for the animals in their care. In addition, they are continually testing new value-added product lines that help reduce waste of their living resources, to reach zero waste by 2025.
This zero-waste policy includes their current work with sea urchins trying to use the whole animal. “Obviously, the row is what we sell for food and that can be around 10% of the whole wet weight. So, we’ve actually developed a fertilizer and organic fertilizer using the rest of the urchin. That’s been what we’ve been doing, trials with wineries and orchards as well for their soil conditioning. And we’re getting some pretty good results”, Mark says.
The same thing is happening with the abalone, of which they are now using almost all of its parts. “We’re working with a company called New Fish, looking at the viscera, the gonad and turning that into sort of high-end delicatessen sort of products, which is really great”, he adds. Alone or collaborating with others, the plan is to close the full cycle in which they use all parts of the fish.
Stronger together, relying on companies and relationships
There is consensus that collaboration between companies is a growing trend in the post-pandemic industry, but for True South Seafood, this is not new. In premium products like theirs, there is not a lot of volume. Demand usually outstrips supply and so there is not a lot of competitive tension between companies and that favors collaboration. “Working together to maximize the quality of the products coming through the consistency, the brand presence, is only beneficial to all companies, so I always try to be a part of that”, says Mark.
During our conversation, it became clear to us that he, like us, is committed to the human factor in the fishing and aquaculture industry. “Relationships in the industry are the most important part of anyone’s career”, Mark Allsopp says. “In business, the information is such an important tool, and having relationships with people that are prepared to share that information with you is always going to be very helpful when you’re trying to obviously build-out plans and understand issues”. And continuous, “the other thing I always say is that when you’re in trouble, the one thing that will get you out of trouble is your relationships. You can call on people to help you. And if you’ve helped them or you’ve got a positive relationship, they’re more likely to assist you and help you out in a tough situation”.
People, the greatest asset
Relationships outside the company, but also inside. True South Seafood’s CEO is categorical when asked about the company’s philosophy: “Our company believes our people are our greatest asset”. According to him, the reason for that is that the industry is still very much reliant on people to do a lot of the work, the catching, the processing, the marketing, so having a team of people that are well respected and looked after and have a mutual benefit or mutual desire to progress the business is always good.
Therefore, Mark Allsopp tries to include and empower all the staff. “If any of my staff wants to contribute to the direction of the business they can, and then that way they feel a part of the journey. Ultimately, I have to make the decisions and I’m accountable for that. But when I do my planning processes, I do include everyone”, he says. And he does it with an objective, “to make sure that they’re motivated and want to succeed for the same purpose”.
Sustainability and integrity, the keys to the future
Before asking Mark what he believes will be the challenges facing the industry in the coming years, it was already clear to us that, for him, sustainability is a key factor when we talk about the future, but he goes beyond that. “The industry is facing a rapid growth phase that puts pressure on the entire value chain, it is easy to get the ‘speed wobbles’ when growth takes off”, he says. And adds: “The industry needs to ensure it is remaining sustainable, some actors in the industry are using aquaculture as a ‘greenwash’ strategy to deflect from other activities that are certainly not sustainable (mining, property development, etc). Maintaining the industry’s integrity will be a significant challenge in the future”.
Integrity may seem like a nuance, but it is fundamental to him also when talking about his own future where, again, people are the focal point. “My greatest challenge is finding good people to work with, there are some great people and not so great in this industry, I wish to surround myself with the latter”.
As we said at the beginning, love, passion, respect and sustainability are the words that Mark says when we start our conversation. Then the word people comes too, and all of them together, show us his idea of what really matters when we talk about the seafood industry. Love, passion and respect for his profession but, above all, love, passion and respect for the ocean around which his childhood revolved and around which his career revolves now. Sustainability is the tool and is the people who must use it responsibly for this industry to have a future. He trusts in people, it seems we have a future ahead.
About True South Seafood
True South Seafood is the leading supplier of premium Tasmanian and New Zealand wild caught live abalone and Pāua, as well as the largest exporter of sea urchin roe from Tasmania. Formerly known as RTSPauaCo, the company operates out of two main locations: in the south of Hobart, Tasmania, and Christchurch, New Zealand, both surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Very committed to sustainability, they are targeting zero animal waste by 2025.